Jimmie Johnson does not attract much of a crowd when he steps out of his apartment in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan and heads to Central Park to jog or go skateboarding. The anonymity of the city is refreshing for one of the most high-profile yet unassuming drivers in NASCAR's Nextel Cup series.
Johnson and his wife, the model Chandra Johnson, have been part-time New Yorkers for years. That makes them an oddity in NASCAR's tight circle around Charlotte, North Carolina. But even if Johnson does not seek the spotlight, he has found fame and even a bit of infamy in his four-plus years on the Cup circuit.
No driver in Cup competition has eclipsed the 21 victories Johnson has amassed since taking over the No. 48 Chevrolet at the start of the 2002 season. At the same time, perhaps no driver has seen as many fingers pointed or has had as many questions asked about his performances along the way.
Now the conspiracy theorists are suggesting there is some nefarious reason for his success at Lowe's Motor Speedway -- the track that features the same sponsor as his No. 48 racecar. Johnson has a four-race winning streak at Lowe's and will try to extend that on Sunday at the Coca-Cola 600. He has won five of the last six Cup races at Lowe's and three 600s in a row.
That does not include last week's victory at Lowe's in the Nextel All-Star Challenge, a nonpoints race that paid Johnson US$1 million.
"Some of the things I hear are just so unbelievable," said Rick Hendrick, owner of the Hendrick Motorsports stable, which includes Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch and Brian Vickers. "You just can't be as clever as some people think."
Yet the No. 48 team has tried to be a little too clever at times, putting it at the center of a controversy that reached its height at the start of this season. Before the first race was run at Daytona International Speedway, Johnson's crew chief, Chad Knaus, was found to have illegally adjusted the rear window of the No. 48 car. On Feb. 13, the Monday before the season-opening Daytona 500, Knaus was ejected from the speedway. The next week, NASCAR added three more races to his suspension.
Even without Knaus, Johnson won the 500 on Feb. 19, and that raised even more ire. "The victory was tainted, no doubt," said Ryan Newman, who finished third at Daytona and questioned Johnson's victory at the time.
It might have been one of the most exhilarating and frustrating moments of Johnson's career. Not that anyone could tell. Johnson, from El Cajon, Calif., has always been an even-keeled contrast to the emotionally charged atmosphere around racing. He is the anti-Tony Stewart of the garage. Whatever anger Johnson might have felt about a backlash, he showed little publicly, steadfastly defending his team.
"That is the word people use to describe him, and it's true," Chandra Johnson said of his temperament in a telephone interview Friday. "I'm amazed at how he is at the racetrack. When he's at home, he's even more even-keeled."
But he is also different this year. In his fifth season of racing at the Cup level, Knaus says he believes Johnson is finally prepared to win a championship after coming close. He has been in the top five in points in each of his seasons, including runner-up in 2003 and 2004.